The Battle of Algiers and three other films about the Franco-Algerian legacy

The Battle of Algiers and three other films about the Franco-Algerian legacy

Algeria has come to the forefront of the news this week. I am therefore posting some reflections that I have been collecting for several years. I have been interested in Algeria all my life; one of my mother’s best friends was a Frenchwoman, a so-called pied-noir (European colonist in Algeria) who grew up in Oran and came to Virginia as a bride after World War II. The significance of the crisis at the Algerian gas field during the past week has implications for us all, as the final paragraph of an article in the New York Times today makes clear:

If the outcome represents a relative setback for Algeria, it could be viewed as a decided victory for the Islamists who carried out the assault on the gas plant, achieving several of their shared perennial goals: killing large numbers of Westerners and disrupting states they have put on their enemies list — including Algeria. Indeed, the militants said Friday they planned more attacks in Algeria, in a report carried on a Mauritanian news site that often carries their statements.

Algeria is all too well known to the French, but it is not well known at all to Americans. An enormous country (tenth largest in the world), it is mostly desert—as the photos of the installation presently under attack from jihadists illustrate. Unlike its neighbor Morocco, it has little to offer tourists. Few Americans have visited the country.

I have taken a great interest in Algeria because of movies I have seen recently. Here is a list of them:

Having studied from books all my life, I have found renewed energy from a new source: studying from film. My case in point began to build on two 2010 features from France which have roiled the French people and caused intense soul-searching among them. One of the films is called Outside the Law. It is a thriller of sorts, launched by a scene depicting the May 1945 massacre of mostly unarmed Algerian civilians by French soldiers in the Algerian town of Sétif, setting off the reactions which form the core of the movie. This long, grueling, but unfailingly gripping film depicts the struggles of the Algerians for liberation from the French and their internal debates among themselves about the use of terror and brutal methods. The acting is particularly compelling; the principal Algerian character is a Malcolm X type with charisma in spades. This movie does not pretend to be impartial, and many French people were predictably enraged by it, but its power to involve the viewer cannot be denied, and one finds oneself siding with the Algerian rebels in spite of oneself.

The second film, Of Gods and Men, was released in France at the same time as Outside the Law, but could hardly be more different ( I have already written about Of Gods and Men in a previous blog Both were huge box-office phenomena in France, but have not made it past the smaller art houses in America (they are available on DVD, however). Today’s geopolitical situation demands that we know more about Muslim lands and the role of the West. Much is to be learned from watching, first, these two, and then the celebrated 1966 film The Battle of Algiers (directed by Gillo Pontecorvo).

The estimable Criterion Collection is the basic resource from which to study important classic movies. The Battle of Algiers is packaged with a wealth of commentary about its history and contemporary relevance. Presented in a quasi-documentary style, the Pontecorvo film tells the story of the Algerian resistance, its use of terror, and the corresponding French tactics. Ever since it was made, it has been recognized as a particularly revealing depiction of a civilian population involved in a violent uprising and drawn into terrorist tactics (in recent years it has been screened at the Pentagon).

A particularly striking feature of The Battle of Algiers is its treatment of the deaths caused by the conflict. In an interview packaged with the film, Pontecorvo explains how he used the same musical theme, derived from J. S. Bach, to accompany both French and Algerian casualties. As a humanist, he wished to show the waste and sorrow of violent death impartially, without privileging one side over the other.

A third French-language movie available on DVD, though not in the Criterion collection, is Caché (“hidden”). This fascinating 2005 movie, written and directed by esteemed director Michael Haneke and featuring Juliette Binoche, tells the disturbing story of a sophisticated Parisian family haunted (in more ways than one) by the dark history of the French with the Algerians. We are taken back forty years to the time when the life of an orphaned Algerian child was perilously dependent upon the whims of the French family that first took him in and then rejected him. We are brought forward to get a glimpse of the Parisian banlieus of today, the dismal, overcrowded suburbs where Muslims of Algerian origin smolder with resentment and pent-up violence. Caché has been dissected, praised, disparaged, and dissected again (the Internet is full of the discussion)—there is an unsolved mystery at its core—but from the perspective of someone interested in the historical resonances, it’s striking. It makes one realize that “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past” (to quote William Faulkner).

Caché, which could be superficially described as a nifty suspense-thriller, illustrates the dilemma of living with guilt, even when it is not certain exactly who is most guilty or how much. The action in the movie, which takes place in the early 2000s, is constructed around an incident in Paris on October 17, 1961 when the Paris police, led by the police prefect and former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, attacked a peaceful FLN demonstration (the FLN–not always peaceful, to say the least–was the Algerian freedom party in the war of liberation from France). Later, scores of Algerian corpses were found floating in the Seine. After 37 years of denial, the French government finally acknowledged 40 deaths in 1998, although there are estimates of over 200. The repercussions of this atrocity are powerfully at work in Caché even though the incident itself is mentioned only once, in passing, so that an unknowing observer would not even notice it. Haneke has said, however, that he was so shocked in learning of this episode only in 2003 that he determined to write and direct a movie around the fact that it was “hidden” (caché) for so many years as though it had never happened. “What have we suppressed in order to arrive where we are? It’s a rather unpleasant subject.” Only recently I heard a discussion on NPR about the curious absence of attention to the Papon-initiated massacre, even to this day. (As if this was not enough in the way of atrocity, another recent movie, Sarah’s Key, depicts the roundup of Jews at the “Vel d’Hive” in Paris during World War II, a barbaric action devised by none other than the aforesaid Maurice Papon [Google him!] )

The French have at least partially come to terms with their guilt for Algeria. Torture “worked” for a while, as information was gathered about future strikes and the terrorist infrastructure of the FLN was disabled. But France was eventually defeated in Algeria. The battle for hearts and minds was lost and the whole world is now paying the price. Therefore torture is today widely condemned in France. In the bonus material for The Battle of Algiers, there are lengthy discussions of the use of torture, primarily by the French, but by the Algerians also.

In my subsequent reading, I have learned that two French generals, Jacques Massu and Paul Aussaresses, represented two very different responses toFrance’s actions in Algeria. Massu, the commander of the French troops, was interviewed by Le Monde many years later. He said, “When I look back on Algeria, it saddens me…One could have done things differently.” ( Adam Shatz, “The Torture of Algiers,” The New York Review of Books, 11/21/2002). A former aide to General Massu, however, Paul Aussaresses, took the opposite position and defiantly defended torture in a rather shocking interview (2002) on CBS’ 60 Minutes. He is not honored in France, however. A scathing French cartoon shows him gleefully snarling, “Yes, torture was necessary! Without it, we would have lost Algeria!” The irony, of course, is that France did lose Algeria, in more ways than one—and will pay the price for a long time to come.

In the final analysis, it is essential not just to watch movies, but to read a book, or two or three. I was so impressed with Of Gods and Men that I ordered the book The Monks of Tibhirine, by John Kiser. I found it utterly compelling. Many who saw Of Gods and Men were baffled by the monks’ motivation; Roger Ebert praised the film but complained that they had thrown their lives away. Steven Erlanger, the New York Times bureau chief inParis, writes,

[Of Gods and Men] is idyllic and bizarrely apolitical. It seems strangely ignorant of the colonial implantation that the monastery represents, so many years after Algeria won its independence, and that a proselytizing Roman Catholicism itself represents. It is an odd obliviousness in a poor, divided country where jihad is on the rise as the political response of the very peasantry among whom the monks live so blissfully, and apparently blindly.

To get the full picture, therefore, it is necessary to read the book. Erlanger is helpful, however, in quoting Benjamin Stora, “one of France’s best historians of Algeria and French colonialism”:

“It is a wound,” [said Stora],“Algeria is France, it is part of the history of French nationalism. Algeria continues to obsess people and still torments French society.”

The full article by Erlanger treats both Of Gods and Men and Hors la Loi (Outside the Law). Here is the link:

The monks of Tibherine were murdered by Islamist extremists during the ten-year Algerian civil war (1991-2011), a singularly brutal conflict which was fought by the Algerian government against groups of jihadists. Some of these groups later formed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which is active today. 

In any case, I defy anyone to watch these four films, or even one or two of them for that matter, and not get a feeling for the Algerians, and for the poisonous legacy of the French-Algerian conflict (I say this as a lifelong Francophile). If you can watch only one, make it The Battle for Algiers, a very disturbing film but an acknowledged classic masterpiece which will grip you in spite of yourself.

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